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Five ways for CEOs to change culture in a crisis

Over the past months leaders across all industries have had to radically overturn their business strategies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the government policies that have been introduced in its wake. While the initial focus for any organisation in a crisis is on ensuring necessary steps are taken to safeguard its financial and operational viability, there will always come a point when the culture needs to be adapted for any new strategy to work.

While some might be inclined to ignore the role that culture plays in an organisation’s overall performance, many recognise that developing a culture among employees that aligns with the business strategy significantly increases the likelihood of it being successful. Instead of reacting to new circumstances by reverting to ‘tried and tested’ methods of behaviour and communication, the best leaders realise that they need to adapt to the times. The best leaders are open, curious and self-assured enough to engage with people from across the organisation in a way that combines honesty, clarity, care and humility, guiding them to the new ways of thinking and working required to meet the organisation’s challenges.

While achieving culture change can seem like an insurmountable task, especially at times when a business’s survival might be at stake, we believe the following are particularly important:

  1. Be intentional about creating change. Cultures evolve on their own with time, so if as a CEO and a leadership team you are not intentional about shaping it, it is not going to go in the direction you need it to in order to deliver your strategic priorities

  2. Make it personal. Leaders have got to let go of some of their own beliefs – that have also invariably led them to be successful – in order to unlock different ways of thinking, feeling and behaving in the organisation.

  3. Make it inclusive. Culture is held by everyone in the organisation, not just by the top team. While executives can take action to shift a culture, it needs to involve everybody and be an inclusive process that leads people to shift their own perspectives. That’s one of the reasons why telling compelling stories about the organisation is so important.

  4. Be prepared to be unpopular. Often there are individuals in an organisation that are so attached to the previous culture that they’re not willing to let go of it. Unfortunately, this might mean that they have to leave the organisation. Culture change should always be carried out in an appreciative and engaging fashion, but leaders still need to be prepared for the fact that making genuine, impactful changes will require tough decisions that go against the previous consensus.

  5. Be strategic. Rather than trying to implement culture change for its own ends, start off by nailing down what part of the business strategy requires change to the culture. This enables you to focus on the key hard and soft signals that need addressing, while also retaining the strengths in the culture that provide comfort and support the new direction.

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